More than 8 million people have had to flee Ukraine since the Russian attack. These people are missing from the country – with their knowledge, strength, and commitment. Vidnova, a fellowship program, supports Ukrainians refugees so they can help the people in their homeland. We spoke to four of them.
“In 2015, together with my husband at the time, I founded our non-profit organization Cherkasy Urban Institute, which works to get citizens to participate more in the urban development process. In workshops we showed people exactly how city government works, and how they can exert influence and represent their interests. Our office was in the center of the city. The organization was growing. Everything was good.
In the first days after the Russian attack, we used our rooms for spontaneous first-aid courses. Since then, everything has been about the war. My ex-husband teaches soldiers how to use drones. A little later, I fled across the Romanian border with our two children. The uncertainty scared me a lot. At the same time, never in my life have I experienced so much help and kindness from strangers.
At the moment, for the first time in my life, I’m living in a village – in the guest house of a farm in Friesland. I get along well with the owners, but I feel isolated. Thanks to Vidnova I was able to travel to Berlin and exchange ideas with other Ukrainian activists. It made me realize how much I need this exchange with others, these connections. In the early days, I supported Dutch volunteers in helping Ukrainian refugees deal with bureaucracy and find housing. Now I'm doing a podcast with a Ukrainian psychotherapist in which we talk to refugees about their feelings, their fear, the stress, the hope – this aspect comes far too short with many of my compatriots. I hope to move to Utrecht or Groningen soon. Then I’d like to set up a project that makes Ukrainian culture more visible in Western Europe. We don't want to be the ones to help forever. The war clearly shows who we are – amazingly strong. And part of Europe.”
“My home town of Kakhovka has been under Russian occupation since the early days of the war. But we hardly saw any soldiers. After the war started in spring 2022, my brother and I collected money, medicines, and food for people who had nothing left. Most of them were Roma, but of course we also helped Ukrainians. An old woman said to us: 'You look like Crimean Tatars.' I said, "We are Roma!" She was totally surprised that we were helping her too.
In May last year, the Russian soldiers came to the Roma youth center I was running and asked for the boss. That's when I knew it was time to leave. With Vidnova's support, I’m now working on a research project on how the perception of Roma in Ukraine is changing because of the war.
In the past, we often experienced xenophobia and discrimination, and the media only reported in negative terms, thus reinforcing existing stereotypes. This seems to be changing. So does the war make prejudices shrink? Is it because many Roma are fighting in the Ukrainian army? It is definitely exciting! I’m suddenly experiencing a new unity within the Ukrainian population.
I started this project while still in Ukraine and am now continuing it online. I want to use the results of the research to stimulate the discussion in Ukraine about our society and identity. I think it's important that we also talk about positive developments. The war must not overshadow everything. We need to clearly name what we’re doing well – so that we continue to move in the direction we’re going.”
“As a diversity consultant, I experience the war as a paradoxical event. On the one hand, all my projects in Ukraine stopped from one day to the next after the war started. Who’s interested in questions of equality and diversity when bare survival is at stake? On the other hand, the state of emergency shows how important women are in Ukrainian society – that they are much more than decorative figures. They fight as female soldiers, they give orders as commanders, or drive military vehicles from Western Europe to the front. That is why I’m optimistic about gender equality in Ukraine in the future.
Of course, the war is also mercilessly exposing the problems we still have in our society. We’re not prepared to integrate a child with one leg into everyday school life. We’re failing to evacuate the sick and people with disabilities from Ukraine. Luckily, many new projects related to gender equality and inclusion were started – despite the war. And I want to be involved in that work, too!
In the UK, I started out working as a cleaner – and on the side as an anti-discrimination lecturer proofreading Ukrainian textbooks, even though the Ministry of Education can't pay me at the moment. The Vidnova Fellowship makes me feel like a valued expert, not a refugee. I’m currently researching whether and how gender equality in the workplace is implemented in everyday life in the UK. It's impressive how this works in male-dominated professions like the fire service. When my 12-year-old son and I return home, I want to pass on this knowledge to Ukrainian companies.
“Last autumn I was on German television. The short film "Chacho" was shown on the ARD channel, in which I play Yanush, the son of a conservative Roma family, who has to admit to himself on the day of his wedding that he is gay. It was a nice experience that German television is now taking up such topics. But the film was actually made in 2020 – in a different world.
The night before the Russian attack, I was at the cinema with friends in Kyiv. Afterwards, we talked about the acute warnings of an invasion, but when we parted around midnight, we were sure that nothing would happen. Four hours later, the sirens woke me up. As the Russian army advanced towards Kyiv, my friends and I left.
A friend's mother took me in – in a small town near the Romanian border. I stayed there for three months. Five of us slept on a sofa. That was terrible. I couldn't work there. Luckily, at that time I was still enrolled at a university in Ireland. That was my chance to get an exit permit and go to Berlin.
Thanks to my Vidnova host institution vitsche.org, where young Ukrainians network, I was able to put together a team to work on my video project for sexual education. The educational videos are so important to me because since the war, Ukrainian users have been increasingly confronted with anti-LGBTQ+ content on social media.
The support that the Ukrainian diaspora is currently experiencing in Europe has surprised and touched me. You don't think about whether you should help someone; you just do it. And I’ve met great people here in Berlin. But the best feeling is that I can continue my work from afar through videos and digital channels – and fight for the rights of Roma and LGBTQ+ people in my home country.”
Vidnova is a fellowship program for refugee activists from Ukraine. The fellowship, which lasts several months, is intended to support the fellows in shaping civil society in Ukraine, even remotely. Fellows receive up to €1,500 per month and other funds to implement their own projects. The program includes coaching and training opportunities, as well as regular networking meetings for the fellows. Vidnova Fellowship was created by Commit by MitOst gGmbH and the Remembrance, Responsibility, Future Foundation (EVZ). The program is funded by EVZ, the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the Gerda Henkel Foundation, and the Mercator Foundation.